1. Help keep WhatDoTheyKnow running, with your time or expertise

    In our previous post, we identified WhatDoTheyKnow’s current need for sources of funding.

    But WhatDoTheyKnow also needs more volunteers to join the team. Since the site’s launch, it’s always depended on a highly-motivated, active group of administrators who work to keep it running.

    At mySociety, we’re very grateful for the work the volunteers do; for their part, they tell us that they find the work rewarding and interesting — but we’re always aware that we can’t, and shouldn’t, demand too much from them. The more volunteers we can recruit, of course, the less the workload will be for everyone.

    We’ve identified three general areas in which volunteer help would be very welcome, and if you think you’d fit in to any of these, we’d love to hear from you.

    General volunteers

    Are you:

    • interested in FOI and transparency
    • happy to work remotely but as part of a team, communicating mainly via email
    • able to dedicate a minimum of a few hours per week to helping run the site

    Each of our volunteer administrators give their time freely and are the only reason we can run the service day to day at all.

    Being a volunteer is both rewarding but also challenging, as each juggles their day jobs and home lives. So the more volunteers we have, the more we can spread the workload between them.

    If you have a specific interest in FOI or transparency, or indeed you’d just like to help support a well used civic tech service then we’d love to hear from you. There is always a diverse range of jobs and tasks needing to be done, even if you can only help a couple of hours a week. We all work from home and communicate via email and other online tools.

    If you can help us a volunteer the first thing to do is to write to the team introducing yourself and letting us know about your relevant skills, experience and interests.

    Legal support

    Are you:

    • a law student or professional who can offer expertise in the day-to-day running of the site; or
    • a legal firm or chambers who could offer legal advice on an ad hoc, pro bono basis

    Volunteers with legal backgrounds We take our legal and moral responsibilities in running WhatDoTheyKnow very seriously and we always welcome volunteers with experience of legal matters. Some of the legal aspects of running the site are handled routinely on a day to day basis by the admin team.

    They may, for example, remove correspondence which could give rise to claims of defamation, or where personal data is disclosed by an authority mistakenly and they consider continued publication to be unwarranted.

    The legal challenges thrown up by operating our service are varied and interesting. Joining us could be an opportunity for someone to get some hands on experience of modern media law, or for a more experienced individual, to provide some occasional advice and guidance on more challenging matters.

    We often find ourselves balancing claims that material published on our site could aid criminals or terrorists, or could cause harm in other ways, and we do our best to weigh, and balance, such claims against the public interest in making the material available.

    As material published on our website may have been used to support news articles, academic research, questions from elected representatives, and actions by campaign groups or individuals it’s important we don’t remove correspondence lightly and that we’re in a position to stand up, where necessary, to powerful people and institutions.

    Legal firms that can offer advice As from time to time there are cases which are more complicated, we would like to build a relationship with a legal firm or chambers that can advise us on an ad hoc basis on defamation, privacy (misuse of private information) and data protection.

    The ability to advise on copyright law and harassment law would also be an advantage. And we also on very rare occasions may need help as to how to respond to the threat of litigation.

    Could you offer help in this area? Please do get in touch to discuss getting involved.

    Administrative support

    Are you:

    • a committed, organised, empathetic person who could volunteer a few hours (working from home) a week

    In our previous post we mentioned that we’d ideally secure funding for an administrator who could handle our user support mail and deal with routine but potentially complex and time-sensitive tasks such as GDPR-based requests.

    While we seek funding for this role, would you be willing to fill it on a voluntary basis? Please get in touch.

    Lots to help with

    So in summary, what we need to keep WhatDoTheyKnow running is money, volunteer help, and legal support. If you can help with any of these, or have some ideas of leads we might be able to follow, please do get in touch. It also helps to share this post with your networks!


    Alternatively, you can help out with a donation large or small — every little helps.
    Donate now

    Image: CC0 Public Domain

  2. Workfare: what happens when the government doesn’t want to release information?

    You might have seen it in the Daily Mirror: the full extent of the Department of Work and Pensions’ legal costs, incurred while fighting the obligation to name the companies who participated in the Workfare scheme.

    Workfare is a government program which required the unemployed to work for one of the participating organisations, in exchange for no pay other than their existing benefits — working out lower than the minimum wage.

    It’s a story in which our site WhatDoTheyKnow is strongly involved. The original request for the list of companies participating in the Workfare scheme was made on the site back in January 2012 by user Frank Zola.

    That request was refused, noting that the information was “being withheld under Section 43 of the FOI Act which relates to the commercial interests of both the Department and those delivering services on our behalf”.

    As any WhatDoTheyKnow user is given the means to do, Zola referred the request to the Information Commissioner. They ruled in favour of the release.

    The government were unforthcoming, however, and the matter was taken to tribunal and through the court of appeal. Zola continued to pursue the case doggedly as the government repeatedly questioned the ruling that the information must be released into the public domain. Their defence was that the companies and charities listed as participating in the Workfare scheme might suffer negative effects to their reputation and commercial viability, given the strong swell of public opinion against the scheme.

    In July 2016, four and a half years after the request had first been made, the full list was finally disclosed, and can be seen on WhatDoTheyKnow here.

    But the story doesn’t end there. More than one person, including the Mirror’s own reporters, wondered just how much had been spent by defendants on both sides of the legal tussle. In August another user lodged this request with the DWP and discovered that their costs amounted to £92,250.

    Meanwhile, a similar request to the ICO reveals that their costs in defending the case used a further £7,931 from the public purse.

    We highlight this story partly because it shows the value of persistence. WhatDoTheyKnow is designed to help users to understand their rights. If your request is refused, it makes it clear that you have the right to request an internal review, making that route less intimidating to those who don’t know the ropes. If you go on to the appeals process, we hope that having all previous correspondence online helps with that. Other users can also offer help and support via the annotations system.

    In this case though, we think many would have been deterred once the matter had been referred to the higher courts, and we congratulate everyone concerned for sticking to their guns and getting this information out into the public domain.

    In a further twist, it’s perhaps worth relating that a few weeks ago, the supermarket Sainsbury’s contacted the WhatDoTheyKnow admin team and asked us to remove their name from the list of organisations who took part in Workfare, since “a small number of our stores did participate in the government’s Work Experience programme but this was not company policy”. We decided not to comply with this request.

    Image: Andrew Writer (CC-by/2.0)

  3. Can you leak a decision that has not yet been made?

    Few of our users realise this, but hardly a week goes by without mySociety receiving a legal threat relating to our Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    These might refer to perceived libel in a request, or to material released in error, which an authority now wishes to retract. In the normal course of things, our team deal with legal issues quickly and diligently, occasionally consulting our lawyer – and generally speaking, they never need concern our users.

    On Friday November 7th, at 2:17pm, we received a ‘letter before action’ from Enfield Council’s legal department, asking us to do two things: first, that we take down a certain request, and secondly that we provide them with information on the person who had raised it.

    By 3pm.

    Well, that’s a quick turnaround even by the standards of our crack team of volunteers, even if it had been clear that Enfield had a good legal case. And, once we looked closely, we weren’t at all sure that they did.

    Image by Michael NewmanThe FOI request which had triggered this message seems like a fairly standard one: it asks for information about the closure of public libraries, and how much those closures would contribute towards the council’s stated target of making £65 million of savings over the next three years.

    It is worth mentioning that the name this FOI request was filed under was clearly and demonstrably an impersonation – it claimed to be from the CEO of Enfield Council. In fact, we’d already been in correspondence with the council over this, and, as impersonation is against our site policies, it was a quick and easy decision for us to remove the name.

    But now came this follow-up from the legal department, with its two demands. The second of these – details of the requester – is also a simple matter. At WhatDoTheyKnow, we do all we can to protect our users’ privacy. We would not release a user’s name without a court order, as we state quite explicitly in our Privacy Policy:

    We will not disclose your email address to anyone unless we are obliged to by law, or you ask us to.

    – and indeed, we have only done so once, when compelled to by a court order, in all the site’s long history (currently standing at over 200,000 FOI requests and over 71,000 users).  The other point was slightly more tricky. We do our best to run WhatDoTheyKnow in the most responsible manner possible, for our users and for public authorities. We often have to tread a delicate line in order to do so.

    Often there is a good reason that public bodies want information taken down, and the team routinely act rapidly to remove personal information, and other material that public bodies accidentally release, from our website. When we do take material down, wherever possible we do so transparently, leaving a note explaining what’s been removed and why.

    But, where possible, we do not remove a request from the site, unless there is a very clear reason why its publication is breaking the law. Putting the mischievous name of the requester aside, this appeared to be a standard request about libraries and funding.

    On occasions, like this, when requests to take material down appear unfounded or overzealous, we challenge them.

    The notice before action stated that ‘the public availability of this information is or is likely to be highly damaging to Enfield Council’s ability to properly carry out those projects’. It also referred to ‘confidential and commercially sensitive’ material having been released, but we can find little within the request that is not publicly available elsewhere – for example, on the council’s own website one can find details of the Library Plan Development consultation document, containing very similar information – and nothing that seems obviously sensitive.

    The council  have recently been reported as saying:

    “No decisions have been made yet on the type of library or the location of libraries. The final decision on the library service, location and different types of libraries will be made in February or March next year following the conclusion of this consultation.”

    So – if a decision has not yet been made, the number of libraries to be closed cannot be a leak, as the information does not yet exist.

    For those reasons, we responded to Enfield Council ask for clarification. We took down the request in question as a precaution, while we awaited this clarification. We gave them slightly longer than 43 minutes in which to do so — in fact, we contacted them on 10 November asking them to reply by 5pm on 14 November with clarification on their position.

    For some reason it took them until 13 November to say they wouldn’t be able to reply substantively by then, so we asked them to respond instead by 5pm today — otherwise we would make the request public again.

    No clarification has yet arrived. That being the case, we have made the request live.

    Image: Michael Newman (CC)